Two historians explain why you should care when Donald Trump ditches journalists
Donald Trump went rogue Tuesday night.
The president-elect left his home in Trump Tower to go to the 21 Club in New York City with his family to grab dinner. But he intentionally ditched reporters waiting downstairs, who had been told by Trump officials that the incoming president was in for the night.
No one thinks Trump should be prevented from enjoying a meal with his family. But for decades, a "protective pool" of journalists has followed the president or president-elect wherever he goes, ensuring independent coverage of the leader of the free world should a crisis arise.
Preventing those reporters from tracking the president-elect's whereabouts, even when he's at dinner, erects a barrier between the American public and their leaders, said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian at Stanford University who has written books on almost every era of the presidency.
"This is a constant as part of our democracy. In a sense, presidents are being shadowed. They're being watched," Dallek said. "This is the way the job works."
Press freedom and access expert Charles Davis, dean of the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the need for journalists independently monitoring the president has never been greater.
"Given the rise of fake news and instant Twitter conspiracy theory, I think it's more important than ever that there be a protective pool attached to the president," Grady said.
Trump's team said Wednesday they will work to improve communication between Trump and the press. Trump is certainly not the first president-elect to leave journalists behind: Then-President-elect Barack Obama took heat for taking an unannounced trip to a water park with his daughters in 2008.
Mic spoke with Dallek and Davis by phone for their thoughts on why the public should care if Trump abandons the journalists tasked with tracking him. Both interviews are included below, and have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Robert Dallek, presidential historian
Mic: What is the history between presidents and the press?
Robert Dallek: Going back to Theodore Roosevelt, there has been a longstanding tradition of presidents trying to connect with the press in order to help shape their administrations. They understand there is a big public out there. For the first years of the 20th century, it was only newspapers and magazines. You had no radio or no television.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first one to hold press conferences to try and influence the press in that way. It's been a very uneven story ever since. Herbert Hoover held press conferences, but the press found he had a very cold and standoffish character. By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt would hold two press conferences a week. Reporters would crowd into his office, stand around his desk and he'd say, "Well, there's nothing new today boys. But I'll just tell you off the record," and off they would go. They loved it.
I think the most successful presidents — including John Kennedy, who used to call the press conferences "the 6 o'clock comedy hour," he had a kind of charm, wit and charisma that journalists found very engaging. It's a tradition that these reporters are covering the administration, covering the president and the White House. They see themselves as the Fourth Estate, a fixture of part of this democratic political system we have.
The idea that a handful of reporters are always gonna be on call, and available to follow the president around — they don't love it by any means. They find it a bit oppressive at times. But those who are most effective as politicians understand that this is what goes with the territory.
Can you talk about specific examples in presidential history when the press pool was significant or important?
RD: It was very important when 9/11 occurred and the pool was reporting on the whereabouts of George W. Bush. With John Kennedy, they were very much around him and of course reporting on the assassination.
When Roosevelt took some trips abroad during the war, he purposefully deceived the press as to his whereabouts. He took a couple of reporters with him on his ship going to Yalta and Tehran, but they weren't allowed to write stories or report back until the conference was over.
He still had the press with him. But he managed it in a way that made it effective for him.
Does every president or president-elect, at times, deceive the pool?
RD: I can't give you chapter and verse on that. But every president knows that there is, to some degree, an adversarial relationship with the press. They're looking for stories that they can tell, revelations that they can put before the public, and the president is looking for ways to manage his image.
Especially in this day and age of television and the internet and this rapid communication that takes place, there certainly is, as a general rule, a measure of adversarial relations, and of course it all depends on how the president manages that. The ball's in his court because the press is going to be there, they're going to want press conferences.
It will be interesting to see how often Trump will hold press conferences. Will he do it as often as Franklin Roosevelt? As often as John Kennedy? Lyndon Johnson didn't like the press very much, yet he also had to have press conferences. Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford — it's part of the regimen of being president.
Can you explain why non-journalists should care about the pool?
RD: The importance is it is the link between the general public and the White House. This is a constant as part of our democracy. In a sense, presidents are being shadowed. They're being watched. They're on-call, so to speak. They live in a bubble. This is the way the job works.
Anyone who gets into it without this understanding will struggle about that, because it's a fixed part of our democratic system. I would say that the value of the press is the link to the White House, the president, for the masses of society.
Charles Davis, press freedom and access expert
Mic: What is the protective pool and its history?
Charles Davis: The protective pool emerged during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. If you start to think about the parallels in media history, the FDR administration emerged as what we would call "mass media" was becoming what it is today. The homogenous mass media audience had emerged. American cities had reached a point where urban dailies were very large, influential institutions. The Associated Press was fully formed.
The protective pool emerged as a result of all the socio-economic phenomenon of that era. It also had something to do with the fact the presidency had also emerged from a more informal stage into the very important, transglobal position that it is today. This whole concept of the "leader of the free world" was really a concept that the FDR administration would have conceived of. There was more than one "leader of the free world" at that period of world history.
It became doubly important that the president be constantly surrounded by observers. It's incredibly practical. You want to have somebody within shouting distance of the leader of the free world at any given moment because, quite frankly, anything can happen.
In an age of instant communication that was not available to previous presidents, why do we still need a protective pool?
CD: Without the protective pool, can you even imagine — I mean, given the conspiracy theories that have emerged out of the Kennedy assassination, without a protective pool, I cannot even imagine the conspiracy theories that would have been engendered. That was covered instantaneously by the press on the ground, and there's still 101 conspiracy theories around it.
Given the rise of fake news and instant Twitter conspiracy theories, I think it's more important than ever that there be a protective pool attached to the president. It's easier now than ever before to dissuade people from the official account of what's going on on the ground. You not only have to be able to refute whack-a-doodle conspiracy theories that are out there, but foreign governments that are trying to spin and create propaganda and disinformation campaigns aimed at the American government.
In the last electoral cycle, there were a lot of people trying to spin disinformation about American electoral politics in real time, as it was happening. I don't think we can possibly say how important it is that we have eyes on the president all the time, or at least on hold, on standby.
There was this controversy about the fact that President-elect Trump went out to dinner the other night without the press pool. Presidents have been doing that, without the press pool, without the protective pool right in front of the president, for generations. They go on standby. They hang out in hotel lobbies. They hang out in meeting rooms and then they're called back in when the president is ready to emerge from a private dinner.
It was much ado about nothing.
There was a lot of criticism of Trump for ditching the pool. You don't necessarily see it that way?
CD: No, I don't. Well, let me qualify that: I do see it that way because President-elect Trump actually ditched the pool. He didn't put them on hold. He just disappeared.
I think they can work it out very easily if President-elect Trump decides to follow the tradition of every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and just tell the press, "I'm going to dinner; stand by."
The difference here is he just ditched them. I honestly attribute that more to lack of experience more than any kind of conscious decision.
Can you explain why non-journalists should care about the pool?
CD: The most practical reason I could give a member of the non-press for the existence of the protective pool is that our presidents tend to be older men. Older men are prone to medical emergencies. Medical emergencies, if not covered immediately on the ground by a protective pool, it gives rise to all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories.
The most practical possible reason to give for the protective pool is just that: It's to protect, in the event of an emergency, let alone a national emergency, in which you want to be able to get information to the public directly, unfiltered, about what's going on with the president of the United States.